Achar, also known as Indian pickles, has been a part of Indian culture and history for 4,000 years. I would say that the pickling technique originated in India; the process is as old as our civilization. People first started salting and drying food in brines to preserve it for long journeys.
The ingredients that make up achar can be both simple and seasonal. All Indians have dozens of pickles at their disposal: assorted or mixed pickles, lime, chilli, gooseberry — the list goes on. Yet no pickle is more beloved by Indians than the most famous of all, mangoes. It all starts with raw mangoes at their peak, chosen for their acidity and firmness, with each region touting its mango variety and recipe as the best.
Opening a jar of pickles is universally euphoric. First, the aromas of spices bring me back to childhood. Soon after, I smell the fiery peppers, and the bright red and green fruits pop out of the mix.
Mango is served at every meal and is always a trusted sidekick to India’s most notorious rice dish called Hyderabadi biryani. Traditionally, Indian meals pair a small piece of pickle with each bite of food. (Some people prefer to mix certain pickles — especially oil — with plain rice.) However you eat your pickles, the joy is in mixing the hot and spicy flavors together.
I’ve seen kimchi — a delicious South Korean dish made with cabbage, radishes, and other vegetables — on nearly every menu, from brunch to lunch to dinner. It’s nearly impossible to dine in New York and other popular foodie destinations without seeing a pickled item on every dish. And it’s easy to see why: we often want something hot and spicy to complement the subtle flavor of the main serving. This is where pickles – or more recently kimchi – have played an important role in satisfying our taste buds. I should note that there are thousands of varieties of pickles used in cuisines around the world.
Marinated carrots, mango, onion and plum from Chef Palak (Image courtesy of the Institute of Culinary Education)
As essential as salt and pepper are to the American table, achar has graced my family’s table for generations. I was inspired to build on this tradition and put my marinade knowledge to use with locally sourced vegetables. Chef Chris Scott and I tested four pickle varieties ranging from sweet and salty to fiery and bold. The humble pickled, mandoline-sliced onion and dried garlic kicked off the line with copious amounts of salt, chili, sugar and vinegar. Then we had a more adventurous version with carrots, pairing the sweetness with a bit of sugar, using roasted and powdered dried fenugreek and coriander seeds, a touch of hing (a spice commonly used in cooking Indian) and oil infused with black mustard seeds.
The real experimentation started when I wondered if I could make tandoori marinated butternut squash. The short answer – yes, and it was an irresistible creation. Finally, a sweet-salty finish with plums coated in dried Omani limes (a traditional ingredient in Middle Eastern cuisine), sugar and chili peppers from India and Korea. This might have been our accidental discovery because the acidity and dried lime flavors played so well with the sweet fruit. The beauty of pickle making is a proven process that is quite forgiving for beginners.
So the next time you want to enjoy pickles like at your favorite Indian restaurant or wow your friends with an authentic creation in the kitchen, think of a vegetable or a fruit, search your cupboard for spices, add a touch of salt, oil and vinegar – and violà, you have pickles. Almost all of these pickles can be stored in the refrigerator for two weeks in airtight containers.
Recipe: Marinated Carrots
- 1 large carrot, peeled
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon red chilli powder
- 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon of sugar
- 1 teaspoon fenugreek powder (optional)
- 3 tablespoons mustard oil
- 1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
- 1 pinch of asafoetida
- Thinly slice the carrot with a mandolin, place it in a bowl.
- Add the salt, red chili powder, lemon juice, sugar, and optional fenugreek powder to the bowl. Let stand 30 minutes.
- Heat mustard oil over medium-high heat, add mustard seeds and asafoetida.
- Remove the oil from the heat and let cool.
- Pour over carrots and stir.
- Place the pickles in a clean glass jar. Store in the fridge for a week.
Recipe: pickled plums
- 1 whole dried Omani lime (will yield 1/4 tsp dried powder)
- 4 plums, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon of white wine vinegar
- 2 tablespoons of sugar
- In a small saucepan, lightly heat the lime. Grind into a powder in a spice grinder.
- Place the plums in a large bowl and add the salt, cayenne powder, vinegar, dried lime powder and sugar. Let stand 30 minutes.
- Place the plums in a clean glass jar. Store in the fridge for a week.